Tragedy at sea brings back chilling memories of Anthony Latham
Latham, a Red Sox minor leaguer, drowned in a boating accident in 1983
He was on a fishing trip off the Florida coast with two teammates and a fourth man
John Mitchell and Scott Skripko survived after more than 20 hours in the water
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- He should be here.
That's the tragedy of it all. Not the drowning, not the funeral and not even the horrible memories of that fruitless search for life off the Gulf of Mexico in the fall of 1983.
No, the most haunting part, hands down, is that Anthony Latham should be here. He would be 47 years old, that much we know. But the rest, well, the rest is a painful game of What If? Perhaps Tony Latham, having completed a lengthy major league baseball career with the Boston Red Sox, would be managing a Triple-A team somewhere in the Midwest. Perhaps having fizzled out after a few mediocre minor league seasons with the Boston Red Sox, he would have completed his aerospace degree from the University of Virginia and gone on to work for NASA. Perhaps he would be contentedly single. Perhaps, somewhere out there, a woman exists who -- had fate called for calmer water or different decisions -- would be Mrs. Tony Latham right now. Perhaps they would have raised two children, or three, or four.
"I think about that," said Vickie Presley, a middle school principal and one of Latham's four older sisters. "Who would my brother be today? What did life hold for him?"
Presley pauses, then stops talking altogether. The questions, tragically, answer themselves. Tony Latham has been dead for 25 years. His fate is sealed. "He was a beautiful boy," said Shirley Latham, his mother. "Just beautiful ..."
Over the past few days, as news outlets relay the saga of the four athletes recently lost in the waters off of Clearwater, Fla., a handful of people have found themselves sent back through time, to a nightmare eerily similar in geography and circumstance to the one of present day.
On Feb. 28, 2009, two NFL veterans, Marquis Cooper and Corey Smith, along with former University of South Florida players Will Bleakley and Nick Schuyler, were anchored 38 miles offshore, fishing, when rough waters capsized their 21-foot boat. On Oct. 30, 1983, three Red Sox minor leaguers, Latham, John Mitchell and Scott Skripko, along with Mark Zastrowmy, a native Floridian and owner of the boat, were roughly 10 miles offshore, fishing, when rough waters capsized their 17-foot boat. In 2009 three of the men were apparently lost, while the fourth, Schuyler, survived by holding on to the side of the boat for more than 30 hours. In 1983 two of the men, Latham and Zastrowmy, were lost. Skripko, an outfielder, survived by holding on to a cooler for 20 hours, while Mitchell, a pitcher, survived by holding on to a bucket for 22 hours. In 2009 the pain experienced by the loved ones of the recently deceased is as raw and piercing as a knife wound to the gut. In 2009 the pain experienced by the loved ones of the long-ago deceased is as raw and piercing as a knife wound to the gut.
"It doesn't go away," said Shirley Latham. "You wish it would, but it doesn't. It just doesn't."
Especially now. When she first heard the news of the recent accident, Presley was frozen in her tracks. Though the framed photograph of Anthony that rests atop the piano in her Port Orange, Fla., home reminds Presley of her baby brother on a near-daily basis, the words emanating from a TV newscaster's lips -- LOST AT SEA; ATHLETES; FISHING TRIP; GULF OF MEXICO -- well, they were devastating. "It was like re-living the entire incident," she said. "Like having it happen all over again."
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On the morning of Oct. 30, 1983, Tony Latham, John Mitchell and Scott Skripko, all members of the Class A Winston-Salem Red Sox, all stationed in Port Charlotte, Fla., for a couple of months of Instructional League baseball, decided to use a rare off day for a brief fishing excursion. Skripko, a recent third-round draft pick out of Middle Georgia College, knew a man, Zastrowmy, who owned a boat and would happily escort them out into the water. "That day the waves were choppy, and the boat was only a 17-footer," said Mitchell. "We weren't supposed to be out there, especially without life jackets. But it was our one day off, and we really wanted to fish."
Mitchell, a Nashville native and one of the Red Sox's top pitching prospects, was comfortable in the water, as were Skripko and Zastrowmy. Latham, however, was not. In high school and college, teammates had jokingly nicknamed him "Lakeside" for his inability to swim. A gregarious young man with high cheekbones and an infectious laugh, he never took the ribbing to heart.
Born and raised in the lower-middle class town of Robersonville, N.C., Latham was a clean-living kid who played the saxophone and excelled in every imaginable sport -- tennis in the fall, basketball in the winter, baseball in the spring. "Oh, did he love baseball," said Presley. "That was his first passion."
A natural outfielder, the speedy Latham earned an athletic scholarship to the University of Virginia, where he was the only African-American on a roster of 33 players. The year was 1981. There was still a good amount of racial hostility in the south. Many Virginia players had never befriended a black man before.
"Forget it -- he fit in perfectly," said George Priftis, the team's star second baseman. "People were naturally attracted to Tony, because he just had this infectious way about him. He was an excellent baseball player -- he could run, he hit for power and he had a powerful arm -- but that had nothing to do with why we liked him. He was just a great human being. Someone who always had a smile on his face."
With a laugh, Priftis recalls the time the Cavaliers played a fall road game at James Madison, and Latham forgot to bring his bat. "We had this weighted 54-ounce bat, so Tony dragged it up to the plate," he said. "We were all cracking up, and then Tony hit a single with it."